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College perks not in budget
The chancellor tells universities to focus on their core mission.
By SHANNON COLAVECCHIO-VAN SICKLER, Times Staff Writer
Published August 9, 2007
TAMPA - In the flush years, when homes sold fast and residents and tourists spent lots of money in the Sunshine State, Florida's 11 universities typically asked lawmakers to fund dozens of proposals for pet projects, new programs and multimillion-dollar research centers.
In many cases, colleges got what they wanted.
Those days are over, the university system's chancellor declared Wednesday.
With the state facing a more than $1-billion budget shortfall that will cost Florida public universities at least $100-million this year alone, Chancellor Mark Rosenberg told college leaders they must narrow their focus to the "bare bones" mission of retaining and graduating students from quality programs.
"Our focus will be on ensuring our students can get in and get out," Rosenberg told university system officials gathered at the University of South Florida. "In the past, the efforts of our institutions often were focused on the ancillary projects and not on the main goal of educating students. My instinct is that that era is over."
Today, the board that oversees the university system is expected to approve a $3.8-billion budget proposal for the 2008-09 year, the first step in a lengthy annual process that ends with the spring session in Tallahassee.
While the budget request is 2 percent more than this past year's, it is notable for its dearth of new initiatives.
It includes $44-million for the fledgling medical schools approved last year for the University of Central Florida in Orlando and Florida International University in Miami. It also proposes $287-million for existing medical schools at USF, the University of Florida and Florida State.
But in previous years, universities submitted lengthy lists asking lawmakers to approve tens of millions for specialized research centers, new degree programs and the like.
The 2008-09 budget proposal includes just a few new programs and enhancements, and they all share a common, basic purpose: Improve the academic experience and graduation rates of the state universities' 300,000 students.
"When times are tough, the first thought has to be, what is best for students?" said R.E. LeMon, vice chancellor. "We think this budget reflects that."
The budget seeks $20-million in performance-based rewards for colleges who retain and graduate the most students; and $82.4-million for improving student advising, retention and graduation rates.
The state's six-year graduation rate is currently 62 percent, but some individual universities like Florida Atlantic and Florida A&M have rates in the 40 percent range.
Rosenberg said universities need to do a better job of educating the students they have, and the proposed budget aims to hire more academic advisers and professors so that students get the attention they need.
"Back to basics," said USF vice provost Ralph Wilcox. "That's where our greatest commitment is."
Even as they craft next year's budget, universities are bracing for big cuts in this year's funding. Lawmakers meet next month in a special session to deal with the state's $1-billion budget shortfall, the result of a sagging real estate market and economy.
The state universities will see their budgets shrink by between $100-million and $232-million, and the governor's chief economist gave college leaders little reason for future optimism.
Christian Weiss told the board of governors and university presidents :
"The state is facing a billion-dollar deficit every year for the next four years."